Mbeki to face a desperate nation

2008-02-08 00:00

cape town — When President Thabo Mbeki stands before South Africa to deliver his state of the nation address today, he will speak to a nation desperate for reassurance.

Whereas, two years ago, he stood proudly before the country and declared that South Africa was entering the “age of hope”, Mbeki will have to convince an anxious nation that, post-Polokwane, he is, not the “lame duck” that commentators are increasingly saying he is and that he has a plan up his sleeves for the numerous challenges facing the country.

All eyes will be on Mbeki to assess the extent to which he will take an independent stand or, to what extent he is prepared to become the mouthpiece of ANC president Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s new national executive committee.

With 14 months to go as president, Mbeki faces a nation that stands on the verge of an economic recession, set off by the electricity crisis, a country whose judicial independence is being increasingly threatened and whose effective state institutions are being increasingly interfered with by the ruling party.

In contrast to his “age of hope” declarations, he was recently described by Newsweek magazine as a man drifting towards a “dangerous kind of authoritarianism” — and Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille recently warned of a “brewing constitutional crisis, because of the ANC’s determination to control all levers of power, including the media, the judiciary, the police and parastatals”.

“The people of South Africa want reassurance that everything is OK. They want reassurance that Polokwane and the succession battle have not undermined the state and its medium- to long-term programmes,” said top Idasa political researcher Jonathan Faull yesterday.

“This is a good opportunity for Mbeki to give us guidance on the role of the government in the next 12 months.

“We want reassurance that the integrity of government is intact and we want guidance through what, in certain respects, feel like really uncertain times.

“We want an articulation of convincing and practical policies which will overcome the immediate hurdles we face in terms of politics, leadership, the economy and the electricity crisis.”

South Africans will also learn today what will dominate the coming parliamentary session — whether it will be issues of collapsing services such as electricity, and increasingly water, transport, education and health — or whether the country’s legislators’ time and energy will be absorbed by issues of internecine warfare, such as the scrapping of the Scorpions and the potential constitutional crisis between the courts and the government executive posed by the trials of Zuma and National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi.

Faull said this is the last time Mbeki will be able to define an annual programme of action. “He is doing it at a time of political flux in the country, and a time of uncertainty relating to both political leadership and the sustainability of the economic growth South Africa has had for the last couple of years.

“Observers will be keen to see whether he will address the more contentious resolutions that came out of Polokwane, such as the transformation of the judiciary, the movement of the Scorpions into the SAPS and the renewed emphasis on health, education, and land and agricultural reform. Will any of these resolutions filter through into his speech? And will he provide time frames for the resolutions?”

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